Sintra is a mainstay of Lisbon travel guides and with good reason. There’s something rather magical about the place, especially after you’ve spent a couple days in the capital. The contrast is striking. Where Lisbon is a sprawling metropolis with access to the entirety of Portugal, Sintra feels insulated, a tiny gem in a pocket of hillside forests, crumbling ruins and candy-colored mansions. It was added to the list of UNESCO Cultural Landscape sites in 1995 and you’ll realize why within minutes of your arrival.
There’re dozens upon dozens of reasons to visit Sintra, and you will not see or experience them all in a single day, so I’ve focused on a few standouts, both from a practical standpoint and a purely experiential one.
I’ve also tried to focus on some of the sights which, in my opinion, are given short shrift in most travel guides. Palacio Nacional, Palacio da Pena and the Castelo dos Mouros are always featured—which is totally understandable—but the spots below are sometimes treated like also rans, footnotes, and that’s a shame.
Awright, let’s get to it! Here’re just a few reasons you should visit Sintra:
It’s a twenty minute train ride from Lisbon
Sintra is practically a suburb of Lisbon. Grab the train at Rossio station, just steps from the Restauradores metro stop, and you’ll be in Sintra before you can complete telling your seatmate about how you don’t usually go to the touristy spots but that for Sintra you’ll make an exception.
Once in Sintra, you’re just a short walk from the center of town.
Though a favorite tourist destination, it retains its small-town charm
Sintra has always essentially been a tourist destination—or at least a resort town. It was the favorite summer destination of Portuguese royalty and now it’s largely frequented by tourists on day trips from Lisbon.
Thing is, don’t let that scare you away. Sintra retains a small, coastal resort town feel. Though much of its town center includes clusters of visitors and tourist trap boutiques, venture just steps away in just about any direction and you’ll find yourself alone or nearly so.
If you’re up for a hike, explore the town and surroundings on foot rather than taking a shuttle and you’ll more easily avoid the crowds. Another tip: do not visit on weekends and skip Monday; many attractions in Lisbon are closed on Mondays, so people will take advantage to get out of town and hit Sintra instead. Stick to Tuesday through Friday.
It’s dripping with mansions, palaces and castles
As the train approaches Sintra’s station, one of the first things you’ll see is Palacio da Pena’s bright red tower peeking past the horizon. Once the train has stopped and you’ve stepped onto the platform, a glance upwards will reveal the Castelo dos Mouros looming over the town.
Within minutes of wandering Sintra, you’ll see gorgeous mansions studding the hillside, the Palacio Nacional and its distinctive twin smokestacks, and, as you move deeper into town, as you climb steep roads lined with statues and moss-veined stone walls, you’ll come across sights that appear to’ve been ripped from a fairy tale.
Speaking of spots that will remind you of a fairy tale . . . Monserrate served as the summer residence of an Englishman, Sir Thomas Cook, who refurbished the estate that traces its roots back to the Moors. Cook also had the palace built in the Moorish style.
The place is absolutely carpeted in subtropical gardens and, among the ferns and exotic trees, you’ll find a lake, waterfalls and the ruins of a chapel. The gardens are stunning and rather romantic,and so it should come as no surprise that they served as the inspiration for Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Strolling through the grounds, it’s easy to feel as though you’ve wandered into a fairy tale and might come across a prince or princess at any moment.
Quinta de Regaleira
If Monserrate would be the setting for the home of a handsome prince or heroic princess, Quinta de Regaleira is where the sinister alchemist or spooky lord would hole up. The place was built in the early 1900s by an eccentric millionaire named Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro. Ol’ Tony was obsessed with esotericism and riddled his palace and grounds with various occult symbols.
The mansion is a monument to Gothic and Manueline design and the grounds include grottos and fountains, stone towers choked with moss and ivy, an elaborate tunnel system and an 80 ft-deep Initiatic Well.
From moment to moment, you’ll feel as though you’ve stepped into a scene from Labyrinth or The Princess Bride or the Lord of the Rings. Eventually it actually might feel like too much. Wandering the grounds, I would occasionally stop, no longer knowing where to go or what to look at, overwhelmed by the sheer indulgence of the place.
Don’t miss it.
And that goes for Sintra as a whole. As mentioned, the points above are just a few reasons to set a day or two aside to visit Sintra on your next trip to Lisbon.